Post-Election Soul Searching: No Quarter

Well I promised that I was going to talk more about my Trump concerns, but unfortunately there is a little more scolding left to do of liberals, which includes me.  I want to talk about complacency and to do that I am going to start with a short YouTube video.

I don’t like her tone very much, and there are a few points I would disagree with, but much of it is hard to hear, because she’s right.  At least in my opinion. Because I was somebody who when Barack Obama was elected I thought that a black man being elected president was a giant step forward and he was so full of hope I felt it.  I felt it so strongly, that I fell into complacency.

The words of JFK continue to ring true, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.”  There have been several studies that demonstrate optimism can lead to complacency and perhaps we are all victims of that.  A country this size has many problems and maybe too many people relied on government to fix them all.  The hope and change that Obama talked about was the responsibility of all us.  And as much I really do like Obama.  He had his flaws as we all do.  Hero worship gets us nowhere.  He still bowed down to the establishment more than he should have.  He still continued foreign policy mistakes of previous administrations, and while the economy recovered there was still growing income inequality and many of the American’s at the bottom saw no improvement in their situation.  This article shows that while there was overall growth in employment, the type of jobs and the quality of jobs matter. Hell we have to pay attention to the fact that even a Muslim…nay a Muslim woman voted for Trump.  I mean holy crap!  If you were to make a list of top 10 types of people to not vote for Trump that would have been near the top of the list.  Now while I believe this woman, given her overall viewpoint, seemed to focus on only a couple of issues compared to all the other ones it certainly tells us that the homogeneity that we apply to Trump supporters isn’t right and isn’t helping.

The other point the video makes is that Hillary is not perfect.  There are valid criticisms to be made.  An article I read today gave probably the most important reason she lost, which is that she didn’t offer anything new.

“But, the desire for change last Tuesday was bigger than any worries Clinton was able to raise about Trump. Four in 10 voters said the most important character trait in deciding their vote was a candidate who “can bring needed change” to Washington. Of that group, Trump won 83 percent to Clinton’s 14 percent — 83 to 14!!!!”
She was going to be the first female president, and I think that will be an amazing day when it happens.  But how would she have been any different than Obama?  Nobody had been able to convince me that she was progressive in any way.  And I’m not saying it’s a bad thing.  She’s worked very hard in her life and has accomplished a lot.  She’s smart.  But I found her to be reactive, not progressive, not a visionary.  There was no change that was the center of platform that was going to be the answer than many struggling Americans are looking for.  This is just my opinion, and I am sure there are those that would disagree.  As the article states, change is what people were looking for.  A change from the establishment, a definitive improvement on Obama’s policies, a voice that speaks to all Americans and not just the ones in swing states who already support her.  In that desperation for change….well…we got Trump.

You can feel the empathy.
You can feel the empathy  with many memes like this.

It’s unclear to me how much change this really represents, and change can certainly be negative.  I was also desperate for change, but I’ll choose slow decline over disaster any day.  But it is a terrible choice to have to make when you know that establishment politics isn’t working and the only choices you are given is the establishment and outsider who runs his campaign on lies, racism, misogyny, and xenophobia.  And what of those last 3 words.  I know many people are upset at being labeled that way in supporting Trump.  Here is the thing.  If all your concerns were legitimate economic ones, were related to health care costs, or just going for change and wanting to vote for an outsider, why did Trump bother with all the racist comments?  Why did he bother fear mongering about existential threats from immigrants and Muslims?  Why did he say that was going to take away women’s rights to determine what happens to their own bodies?  Why was any of that necessary if, as a Trump voter, none of you are these things?  Why weren’t you critique Trump about it while also praising his strengths? This is what we are all struggling with.  So here is what I want to say to the Trump voters.

Dear Trump Supporter,

I will believe you when you say you are not a racist, not a xenophobe, not a misogynist.  I understand you are feeling like your voice has been demeaned and/or ignored, and that your life hasn’t improved or gotten worse.  I understand maybe you just really wanted somebody you felt was going to cause change.  But here’s the thing.  Your candidate said many racist, xenophobic and misogynistic things.  The very words that came out of his mouth was the worst kind of populism that was intended to exploit your fears and spur your anger.  As a result, you demonized a hardworking woman who, regardless of your disagreements with her views or her ethics, she has served this country for many years, introduced a lot of legislation to try and help people and has been an active voice for equality for race, gender, and other minority groups.  I disagree with many of her policy decisions but I have no idea what it’s like being her, trying to be a woman achieving success in a man’s world of politics.  So now you have voted to put a man in power, who, if he does the things he says we will see the violation of numerous constitutional and human rights.  If he enacts the policies he says he will enact we will see the national debt skyrocket, damage relations with foreign countries, and do great damage to the environment.  And the RNC platform is supportive of many of the things Trump said he was going to do during the campaign. This was the cost of your vote.  For many people that are potential victims of the views Trump espoused during the campaign, they are having a hard time understanding how your vote was not in support of those hateful views, but solely rooted in economic change and health care issues.  You want our empathy and understanding, and you will have it, but not at the expense of injustices acted upon other people.  There are plenty of countries where governments work to make all people happy.  We should not be an Us vs. Them scenario.  It is not moral to say “now it’s time to pay attention to you, and screw everybody else.”  So let me know how I can help you, but if you are asking me to hurt somebody else to do so, I simply won’t do it.

And this empathy that you want, this desire to be seen as a human, and complex, and knowledgeable and aware.  It runs both ways.  While I have seen many of my liberal friends condemning the violence at anti-Trump protests, I have yet to see one Trump supporter that I know is on my Facebook News Feed speak out against any of the bullying and violence from Trump supporters.  The most common responses are “These are Hillary plants”, “What about the violence and anti-Trump rallies”, “Give Trump a chance”, or links to fake stories or pictures about anti-Trump protestors.  Remember we also sat through 8 years of “birther” conspiracy theories, denigrating names towards the president, constant lies about how Obama wanted to take your guns, blaming Obama for pretty much everything, and so when you now say we should respect the new president-elect, please understand how hard that hypocrisy is for us to swallow.  The person you have elected has run a campaign based on division, has espoused hate and vowed to infringe on the rights of many people that we care deeply about.  We will not trade their safety for your prosperity.  So you must also work to find a way where we can all get along or nothing will really get better for anybody. 

Finally, we don’t have to like a person who, in his very own words, has promoted ideas that bring harm to people.  We don’t have to show tolerance to the hate, the authoritarianism, and the lies he told.  The cabinet he is building currently leans towards the idea that he really doesn’t care about the working class and that you’ve all been taken in by a snake oil salesman.  I hope this isn’t the case.  I hope that you can show the same amount of understanding and empathy that you expect from us right now, because quite honestly, looking over the rhetoric from the past 8 years, hearing the hateful chants at the Trump rallies, and the bullying and intimidation that’s been going on post-election, it’s difficult to see why I should be doing all the work in this relationship.  So I’ll refrain from calling you those divisive names and labels, if you work to prove that you are unworthy of them.

With Love,
Libtard, socialist, communist, bleeding heart, elitist, femiNazi, clueless liberal

P.S. And if Trump does become the disaster to American ideals of freedom and equality that he espoused during his campaign, anybody who didn’t actively try to stop him from becoming president in this election is responsible regardless of whether you feel the labels hurled against you are fair.

And finally, because every once in awhile we just need some inspirational words here is the response of Buddhist teachers to Trump’s win.

quote-when-i-despair-i-remember-that-all-through-history-the-way-of-truth-and-love-has-always-won-there-mahatma-gandhi-328441

Post-Election Soul Searching: What We’ve Forgotten

In talking with many of my friends who share similar political views it has been up and down this past week.  We search for silver linings, we express anger and sadness, we try to calm ourselves down, and we aren’t always synchronized with others and so everybody can end up arguing with each other at some point.  For me, when something unfathomable to me happens I try to understand as hard as I can.  In many ways this is what led me to understand more about beliefs and why we have them and headed me down the path of neuroscience and cognitive science.  This post will be a bit long, but please don’t be intimidated most of it is copy and pasted from an article that I thought was very well written.  I hope you read the full articles, but if you don’t have time for that, you’ll have to settle for what I think are the most salient aspects.

A few weeks ago I wrote a post, that was the beginning of my investigation into trying to understand the support for Trump and generating some empathy for people who voted for him. And it worked.  The eventual Trump win however caused me to go through some deeper introspection as to how I played a role in divisiveness and demonstrated a lack of empathy.  So I came across a couple of wonderful articles (here is one nice balanced perspective) that looks at this rule vs. urban phenomenon more deeply and I think they are excellent reads.  One of these articles I want to quote several passages.  It is an interview with a UW-Madison sociology professor (Kathy Kramer) who has done a lot of research with rural Wisconsinites.  Let’s take a look at some important passages from the article:

“Cramer argues that this “rural consciousness” is key to understanding which political arguments ring true to her subjects. For instance, she says, most rural Wisconsinites supported the tea party’s quest to shrink government not out of any belief in the virtues of small government but because they did not trust the government to help “people like them.”

“Support for less government among lower-income people is often derided as the opinions of people who have been duped,” she writes. However, she continues: “Listening in on these conversations, it is hard to conclude that the people I studied believe what they do because they have been hoodwinked. Their views are rooted in identities and values, as well as in economic perceptions; and these things are all intertwined.”

Here we can see an important problem.  And the problem perhaps goes for many liberals as well.  Our identities are tied up in our politics.  Perhaps this should not be so.  We know inside we will never get a candidate he really caters to everything we belief.  In fact, most politicians don’t end up doing most of the things they say they are going to do in an election.  It is because our identities are associated with politics that populists exploit them to gain support.  What if instead we expected politicians to give detailed plans on how they would address the issues of all Americans?  You might not be a person living in the rural counties of the rust belt,  but what are their problems?  And if you are a democratic party member should your candidate not be addressing those people?  Sitting down and talking to them.  The same goes for Republican candidates also.

“What I was hearing was this general sense of being on the short end of the stick. Rural people felt like they not getting their fair share.

That feeling is primarily composed of three things. First, people felt that they were not getting their fair share of decision-making power. For example, people would say: All the decisions are made in Madison and Milwaukee and nobody’s listening to us. Nobody’s paying attention, nobody’s coming out here and asking us what we think. Decisions are made in the cities, and we have to abide by them.

Second, people would complain that they weren’t getting their fair share of stuff, that they weren’t getting their fair share of public resources. That often came up in perceptions of taxation. People had this sense that all the money is sucked in by Madison, but never spent on places like theirs.

And third, people felt that they weren’t getting respect. They would say: The real kicker is that people in the city don’t understand us. They don’t understand what rural life is like, what’s important to us and what challenges that we’re facing. They think we’re a bunch of redneck racists.”

I thought this section of the article was very meaningful.  The first point is something very similar to what I’ve experienced in Canada.  People say things like “The feds aren’t listening to Francophones”, “the government is in the east, and nobody is listening to the west”, “government isn’t helping anyone in the rural areas”.  If you are a journalist doing an in depth story on the problems of the day, you probably live in a city, and there are so many people of different walks of life there, you probably would never step outside the city limits.  But the problems of the day are both urban and rural issues.  I can imagine it must be difficult for people in rural areas to pay taxes but not see benefits from that.  Now maybe they are and they don’t know it, but the fact that they have this perception is a valid thing that needs to be addressed.  I can imagine a majority of tax money being used for urban purposes.  Cities make the most noise usually, especially since that’s where the media focus is as well as where politicians spend most of their time.  And her third point speaks to our own contribution to divisiveness between rural and urban.  I’ll own up and say that I have over generalized in that manner and it was wrong.  And even if they are racist, they are still human.  Why do they have that attitude?  Is it just ignorance?  Is it that they have been fed false information?  Is it anecdotal experience that was taken as truth instead of an exception?  We all know we can easily succumb to such things and develop incorrect or harmful opinions and attitudes, despite the fact that we have the best of intentions.

In looking at attitudes of resentment Cramer has this to say:

income-inequality-usa-15“Look at all the graphs showing how economic inequality has been increasing for decades. Many of the stories that people would tell about the trajectories of their own lives map onto those graphs, which show that since the mid-’70s, something has increasingly been going wrong.

It’s just been harder and harder for the vast majority of people to make ends meet. So I think that’s part of this story. It’s been this slow burn.

Resentment is like that. It builds and builds and builds until something happens. Some confluence of things makes people notice: I am so pissed off. I am really the victim of injustice here.

Not much to say here other than problems don’t just go away, they keep getting worse when left unaddressed.  I suspect democrats aren’t entirely to blame either.  It’s been going on for years under various administrations.  Maybe we can even see this as a source of a lot of racial issues that are cropping up now as well.  Problems that have been happening for years and now resentment is just so high people are angry and upset.

On the issue of race there were several good points raised:

We know that when people think about their support for policies, a lot of the time what they’re doing is thinking about whether the recipients of these policies are deserving. Those calculations are often intertwined with notions of hard work, because in the American political culture, we tend to equate hard work with deservingness.

And a lot of racial stereotypes carry this notion of laziness, so when people are making these judgments about who’s working hard, oftentimes people of color don’t fare well in those judgments. But it’s not just people of color. People are like: Are you sitting behind a desk all day? Well that’s not hard work. Hard work is someone like me — I’m a logger, I get up at 4:30 and break my back. For my entire life that’s what I’m doing. I’m wearing my body out in the process of earning a living.

In my mind, through resentment and these notions of deservingness, that’s where you can see how economic anxiety and racial anxiety are intertwined.”

While race certainly plays a role there is again this blue collar vs white collar, rural vs. urban issue popping up again.  My father was a machinist and so really appreciate the value of his work and others like him.  I have often worried about how my son will perceive those people in society given that he won’t have personal experience the way that I have.  But we do live very much in a society where blue collar jobs, low wage workers in retail or the restaurant industry are looked down upon.  I had read an article a few years ago from the perspective of a poor single mother who worked every day, lived paycheck to paycheck, and was on welfare.  She said that she didn’t mind being poor or being somebody who had to work a lot harder than everybody else and not really get ahead, but what mattered most was that people actually felt that she had value.  We shame and dehumanize a lot in this society.  Some people are not good people.  Some are lazy, racist, misogynistic, xenophobes, apathetic, selfish, but they are still human and we have to ask always, how did they get that way?  And if they are treated with kindness and humanity, is there a way in which we can make them a better person?  Cramer continues with:

It’s absolutely racist to think that black people don’t work as hard as white people. So what? We write off a huge chunk of the population as racist and therefore their concerns aren’t worth attending to?

How do we ever address racial injustice with that limited understanding?

Of course [some of this resentment] is about race, but it’s also very much about the actual lived conditions that people are experiencing. We do need to pay attention to both.

Great words.  The interviewer then asks about the idea of people not feeling like they are getting what they deserve:

“Part of where that comes from is just the overarching story that we tell ourselves in the U.S. One of the key stories in our political culture has been the American Dream — the sense that if you work hard, you will get ahead.

Well, holy cow, the people I encountered seem to me to be working extremely hard. I’m with them when they’re getting their coffee before they start their workday at 5:30 a.m. I can see the fatigue in their eyes. And I think the notion that they are not getting what they deserve, it comes from them feeling like they’re struggling. They feel like they’re doing what they were told they needed to do to get ahead. And somehow it’s not enough.

Oftentimes in some of these smaller communities, people are in the occupations their parents were in, they’re farmers and loggers. They sayit used to be the case that my dad could do this job and retire at a relatively decent age, and make a decent wage. We had a pretty good quality of life, the community was thriving. Now I’m doing what he did, but my life is really much more difficult.”

When I read this passage it really made me think that this is what a lot of Americans are facing, not just ones in rural areas.  I’ve seen many articles about how the millennial generation struggle compared to their parents simply with costs being much higher in comparison to wages.  Even with a professor wage I know I have less buying power per dollar than my parents did.  There are so many Americans facing the same struggle financially.  The theme continues and Bernie Sanders gets a mention:

         “It’s not inevitable that people should assume that the decline in their quality           of life is the fault of other population groups. In my book I talk about rural              folks resenting people in the city. In the presidential campaign, Trump is very          clear about saying: You’re right, you’re not getting your fair share, and look            at these other groups of people who are getting more than their fair share.                Immigrants. Muslims. Uppity women.

But here’s where having Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump running alongside one another for a while was so interesting. I think the support for Sanders represented a different interpretation of the problem. For Sanders supporters, the problem is not that other population groups are getting more than their fair share, but that the government isn’t doing enough to intervene here and right a ship that’s headed in the wrong direction.”

leaderI thought this was an interesting observation.  I too saw the excitement Bernie had been getting among more rural and working class voters.  Whether you agreed with his solutions are not, he was also resonating with those that were angry at the government, those that felt the government wasn’t serving their best interests.  Maybe he still wouldn’t have won the presidency, but I do think he at least took the right approach into reaching people and finding common ground among both urban and rural working class citizens.

So what is the way out of this all? Cramer had this to say:

“People for months now have been told they’re absolutely right to be angry at the federal government, and they should absolutely not trust this woman, she’s a liar and a cheat, and heaven forbid if she becomes president of the United States. Our political leaders have to model for us what it’s like to disagree, but also to not lose basic faith in the system. Unless our national leaders do that, I don’t think we should expect people to.”

As much as I’d like to believe that everybody can just pick themselves up by their bootstraps I know that it is really not possible.  I’ve felt for some time that it is our leadership who actually have to convince us that they serve us and not special interest groups.  They need be more vocal about us coming together.  Sadly I think many of them know that keeping us divided is a more effective way to keep power than to get us to unite.

In the end Cramer reminds us that empathy, that talking to each other face-to-face and listening are the most valuable tools we have as individuals:

“One of the very sad aspects of resentment is that it breeds more of itself. Now you have liberals saying, “There is no justification for these points of view, and why would I ever show respect for these points of view by spending time and listening to them?”

Thank God I was as naive as I was when I started. If I knew then what I know now about the level of resentment people have toward urban, professional elite women, would I walk into a gas station at 5:30 in the morning and say, “Hi! I’m Kathy from the University of Madison”?

I’d be scared to death after this presidential campaign! But thankfully I wasn’t aware of these views. So what happened to me is that, within three minutes, people knew I was a professor at UW-Madison, and they gave me an earful about the many ways in which that riled them up — and then we kept talking.

And then I would go back for a second visit, a third visit, a fourth, fifth and sixth. And we liked each other. Even at the end of my first visit, they would say, “You know, you’re the first professor from Madison I’ve ever met, and you’re actually kind of normal.” And we’d laugh. We got to know each other as human beings.

That’s partly about listening, and that’s partly about spending time with people from a different walk of life, from a different perspective. There’s nothing like it. You can’t achieve it through online communication. You can’t achieve it through having good intentions. It’s the act of being with other people that establishes the sense we actually are all in this together.

I’ve always grown in my life when I’ve gotten to know people from different walks of life and I need to continue.  Make an effort to do so.  It was easier growing up because I met so many people from other countries, with various levels of education and careers.  When one has a career themselves it gets a little harder.  I know pretty much other professors and students.  Maybe I need to help Kathy Cramer with her research. 🙂

rural__disenfranchised_voters_push_trump_0_6563315_ver1-0_640_360When it comes to terrorism and the issue of Syrian refugees I’ve spent a lot of time showing research and trying to explain to people the importance of compassion and how disenfranchising people who need our help is likely to increase the level of extremism and not reduce it.  It plays into ISIS’ hands.  And this is all true.  But what if, and I know it’s not all people who voted for Trump, but what is there are lot of disenfranchised white rural voters living in poverty?  Is it likely that they might start adopt more extreme views as well?  It’s an interesting pause for thought.

So in this post I maybe haven’t give a lot of love to all of us who are hurting right now, but I felt this part of the discussion is important.  In my next post, I will talk more about why I think many of us have cause for concern at the new government we face, and how the empathy that I have tried to build here for the Trump voter is not just a one way street.

Racism Thwarted Thanks to Social Media

Former Racist Ellen Degeneres
Former Racist Ellen Degeneres

Burbank, CA – Thanks to a cadre of people on Twitter Monday, racist Ellen Degeneres was thwarted from spreading her divisive, white privilege message to the world when she tweeted herself riding on the back of world’s fastest man Usain Bolt.  People who had gone nearly minutes without being outraged by something quickly piled a dung heap of shame on the unsuspecting Degeneres forcing her to cry and immediately become a better person.

Professional shamer Lindsay Telson told reporters in an interview Wednesday that she was glad she could be one the first to strike shame into the heart of the unsuspecting comedienne. “Some people might have looked at the picture and taken time to consider what it was really trying to say, but I’ve become really good at spotting racism having used Twitter for many years now.”  When asked whether she was still going to continue to fight, a weary but resolute Telson responded “Racism requires all the vigilance that social media can muster.  That’s why I follow so many entertainers and people of import not only on Twitter, but Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat.  People look up to them, and if I can be the first to call them out on their racism I know that such attitudes will soon disappear.  Fighting complex and long time problems like racism 140 characters at a time is such a satisfying feeling.  Also,” added Telson, “you get more people favoriting your tweets and more followers.  So you can fight racism together.”

Long time shamer Randy Loeffler, who also helped shame Ellen, said shaming is a lot more in depth.  “You see,” said a thoughtful Loeffler, “good shaming isn’t just about being first it’s about the level of outrage you display or how piercing your comment is to the person you are trying to shame.  That’s really how you get people to favorite your tweet and follow you.  I’m not saying being quick doesn’t matter, but I feel shaming is more nuanced.”  Reporters took the opportunity to further question the experienced shamer to understand the shaming community better, “I’m not really fond of the term shamer.  I mean it’s true, but I think of myself as more of the social police.  We’re a community you know.  In fact in my area we started a Facebook group called Outrage Outreach.  Not a great name, but the person who thought of it was shamed appropriately.  It’s nice to get a chance to get together in real life with fellow shamers.  We don’t get to talk much to each other, but every once in a while we’re sitting at the table looking at our phones, somebody will call out something shameworthy that a celebrity has posted and we’ll all get on it.  It’s a lot of fun, being outraged together and in person.”

But shamer Destiny Carter painted a more complex and discordant view of the shaming community.  “First,” said a serious Carter, “shaming can be exhausting.  You might start with shaming a celebrity, but then some people will support that celebrity’s racist tweet, and then you have to start shaming the supporters too then they shame you back.  And it’s like there’s this bond you know because you clearly both like shaming, but you’re at odds.”  Carter then became pensive before adding, “Personally I have found it hard to find good friends among my fellow shamers.  One time I went out with one of them on a date.  We didn’t talk much, but we I liked the fact that we were getting really outraged, so we had sex.  But when actually talking after sex, while our phones recharged, it turned out that we felt very vulnerable and uncomfortable getting to know each other as people.  The outrage that brought us together was gone. So I tweeted him the next day that I had fun, but that I didn’t think we should go out anymore.  He got upset and tried to fat shame me because of his concerns to stop obesity and this forced me to shame him back to stop misogyny.  I am sure he’s a better person now as a result of it.  I don’t know…I had to block him when he started to slut shame me.”

To get a better perspective on shaming on social media, this reporter talked to Dr. Leonard Orville at Cornell University  who said that social media has really led to a lot of healing in the U.S. today.  “I don’t want to be too bold in my prediction, but I think that if we are able to maintain this level of shaming, by the year 2025 problems like racism will be a thing of the past.  So many celebrities, athletes, politicians, and just regular everyday people are being shamed into a more egalitarian mindset and society is being mended at an alarming rate as a result.  Hold on…is that a dreamcatcher on your tie?  That’s cultural appropriation.  Let me get my phone to take a picture.”

Life on the Line

In a recent Facebook discussion, we talked about the value of occupations where people put their life on the line.  This of course arose out of a conversation about the currently chaotic situation involving the police and the Black Lives Matter movement.  A friend of mind said he leaned towards siding with police because they lay their lives on the line every day.  Many people feel this way and it is oft used to not only build respect towards police officers, but also people in the military.

On one hand there is certainly courage getting up each day, knowing this could be a day you die…or rather a higher than normal percentage for the average citizen.  Of course the average cop may have as good of odds as the average person who grows up in inner city areas that have a high crime and murder rate.  That aside I agree that it still takes courage, but the stress of such a situation is likely not healthy without a good deal of treatment to deal with the stress.  That kind of stress is likely to make you more likely to take less chances in any given interaction with the citizenry to protect your own life.  Particularly in areas where there is a lot of crime, and for a job which doesn’t pay that well given the cost of your life.

On the other hand, one wonders what compels someone to choose that line of work?  Do people say…”I really want to put my life on the line every day and be a cop or join the military, protecting people?”  I am sure some of them do.  Such nobility does exist.  But I am sure there are plenty of reasons that come into play as well.  Some may join because they can’t afford or don’t want to go to college.  For the military, some may join for the opportunity to go to college, or the job opportunities that will be more plentiful upon graduation.  Many join the military simply as a way to get out of poverty.  Other factors may come into play, like trying to escape an abusive or dysfunctional household, doing it because your father and/or brother(s) did it.  Other less noble reasons could also exist like just wanting the respect that comes with the uniform, picturing yourself as some action hero not even thinking about the consequences of you doing or wanting that instant authority over people.  This has always been the trouble I have had with simply thinking of all cops or military personnel as noble heroes for being willing to lay down their life for others, because it’s unclear to me how much of this courage really factors into their decision to do the job.

wash-ham_memeBut they do, do the job.  At the end of the day isn’t that all that matters?  Perhaps, but if laying down your life, whatever your initial intentions were make you a person with courage then such courage should also be bestowed on all people who have dangerous jobs.  And there are such jobs even though they in no way are protecting other people.  People who are loggers, fishers, and roofers come in the top 3.  Here is a list of the top 20 most dangerous professions per capita (Police come in at 15).  We also must then laud all those who lay their life down for a cause.  This then includes your rebels, your gangs, your suicide bombers.  This people also risk their life, sometimes end their lives for a cause they believe in.  I think we can agree that this is not the type of person we want to elevate to nobility.  Of course it is the values they hold, the values they fight for, the goodness that they protect.  So if we can’t guarantee the motivations of all people who don the uniform, if there are more dangerous professions, and if what makes someone is a hero is the values they represent, it seems to me like “laying down one’s life” isn’t an overly relevant reason to elevate one to a position of automatic respect.

But you may say, “Big talk person with blog, but would you be willing to do the same?”.  And I think it’s a fair question to ask and it’s also an important question I think to ask one’s self.  “Is there a cause for which I’m willing to die for?”  I certainly think I have the courage for it, but I know for me the death part isn’t what would hold me back.  If there was truly no other way besides carrying a gun to solve the problem, then it is my passion that would override my fear of death, at least initially.  It would simply feel like the right thing to do regardless of the consequences.  What I will say is that I am definitely capable of making a mistake, and possibly a deadly one.  Dying to me is quite honestly less scary than taking the life of someone who did feel I deserve it.  Had I shot Tamir Rice.  I would be wishing myself dead, and if they didn’t lock me up, I’d quickly turn in my badge.  Because, how are you going to live with that?

Cop buys mother he caught stealing, $200 dollars in groceries for her kids.  Values to die and live for.
Cop buys mother he caught stealing, $200 dollars in groceries for her kids. Values to die and live for.

When it comes the situation between cops and blacks in the U.S., all I can say is that there is definitely racism in the justice system, and most cops are simply doing their best.  They see the worst of society and the see it every day.  There is no question this wears on them, and there is no question in changes the brain.  But so does poverty and racism.  The key is I think is to reach out to all those who need help.  You don’t have to lay down your life to support the police and black people.  Things have to change or a lot more people are going to die and those are the lives we all need to work together to save.

Why is Barack Obama Black?

Barack Obama Jr. and mother (From http://www.slate.fr)

It is given as a fact by people and media alike that Barack Obama is the first black president of the United States.  This has always irked me a little because Barack Obama is not black; he is biracial, as his mother is unmistakably white.  It makes me wonder why race is being portrayed a certain way.  It is not as if African-Americans are claiming he belongs to their race and white people are claiming he belongs to their race, everybody refers to him as being black.

I am biracial, with my father being from India and my mother born in Canada (half Scottish and half Mennonite).  Even if I were to choose which race I identify with

Barack Obama Sr. and Jr. (From http://upload.wikimedia.org)

most closely, it wouldn’t change the fact that I am of mixed race or that my skin tone is a lovely olive shade in between my darker father and my white mother.  Obama is the same way.  He is clearly lighter than his father and darker than his mother.  So why is he still black?  Personally I would be a bit offended if people try to label my race in a way that ignored the genetic and cultural influence of both my parents.  Moreover I was struck by the fact that when it comes to celebrities like Tiger Woods or Shakira, nobody has any problems identifying them as mixed race.  So, again, why is Barack Obama black?

Now it could be that African-American’s are happy to tout him as black because they are still an oppressed race in this country and for the sake of unity as they continue their fight for equality they are looking for an African-American leader.  Someone who can fly the flag for their race and as president make great strides towards greater equality in this country.  It would be sensible, but I think it would be insulting to many African-Americans to assume they are that naïve to think that one man can make that much of a difference to an elected body that is still predominantly white males and has relatively few minorities and women (in discord with the percentages of minorities and women in the country).

Then I wondered whether or not this issue doesn’t make a larger comment about race and racism.  Many people who are biracial have experienced some lack of acceptance as a result of their mixed race (fortunately not me).  This probably not only extends to mixtures of black and white, but all races.  Now here in the U.S. few would complain about a mixture between an Indian and Chinese person, but in India (and probably China) this would be a big problem.  As prejudice towards black people still lingers in this country, I wonder if it isn’t much more comfortable to label Obama as being black than biracial.  Many white people have grown to accept that black people have just as much rights at them, but for some it becomes a whole different ball game when their white child wants to date somebody who is black, or any other race for that matter.  It strikes me as interesting that while the Supreme Court ruled that segregation was unconstitutional in 1954, it would be another 13 years before they ruled that banning interracial marriages was also unconstitutional.  It seems clear that people are uncomfortable with mixing.  And I know it’s not only white people, and I know it’s not just a matter of race either.  As a half Indian I am well aware how much of a problem it would also be for my dad’s side of the family (and probably also my dad) if I married a Muslim (even if they looked like any other Indian) given that my dad was born in the Sikh religion.  Indians also have trouble with mixing amongst classes.  If I were to marry an “untouchable” or low caste Indian then that would be even worse.

Finally, it’s important to ask Barack Obama how he identifies himself.  According to what I could find he filled in African-American on his census.  I imagine as someone who has darker skin and curly hair, he was likely treated as black by most people who did not know his ethnic origin and perhaps that is why he identifies himself that way.  Certainly his struggles would have been a bit similar, but of course he did have a fairly well educated and financially comfortable situation growing up.  The cynical side of me might say that he identifies himself as black instead of mixed race to gain more voters. Either way, maybe it’s best that we respect his wishes, but it still seems to me that his “white side” is essentially never mentioned.  He’s black. End of story.  As I jokingly tell my black colleague in my department, “Obama isn’t one of you, he is one of me!”  And although this is going to be very controversial, I don’t agree that Obama is the first black president, he is the first biracial president.  It could be that because he was largely raised by his mother and maternal grandparents that he acts and sounds white enough to please white voters, and looks black enough to please black voters.  There is that cynicism again.  I truly believe that being the product of two different races gives me more uniqueness and strengths in my worldview and how I perceive race.  Given our country’s history towards racial mixing, perhaps Obama’s biracial origin is something we should be celebrating more.

 

 

 

Crime and Punishment

On Dec. 17th, Ethan Couch, age 16, was sentenced to 10 years of rehabilitation after admitted to driving drunk and killing four people.  The reason for his light sentence according to the judge was that the defense successfully proved that he suffered from affluenza.

If you clicked on the Wikipedia link I provided for this condition (a condition which doesn’t even pass my spell check), I think that one could conclude that if someone was suffering from this condition, this could certainly impact their decision process greatly and make them likely to be reckless and careless.

Now I am a strong supporter of psychological treatment and the impacts our parents have on our development and decision-making processes.  We over-incarcerate far too much in this country and I am especially for providing our young with psychological treatment over incarceration because study after study shows how the earlier we recognize a behavior (whether due to a traumatic event or crappy parents) we can correct that behavior.

Ethan is a rich, white kid.  Worst-case scenario his parents are selfish assholes who spent little time with him, who enjoyed the privilege that money has given them.  They probably flouted laws themselves knowing that as an upstanding member of the community they probably wouldn’t get too many speeding tickets if pulled over, and even if they did they could pay any fine.  Remembering, I’m sure, to mention to the cop that they might have a talk with some politician of theirs who is a friend and talk about possibly reducing the budget of the police force after a generous donation to that politician’s re-election campaign. When you have ridiculous sums of cash, the law is always on your side.  After 16 years of seeing such behavior and without your parents giving you the time a day, I would say that your sense of right and wrong would be screwed up.  Your attachment to reality would also be screwed up, because you literally don’t understand how most of the world lives when the only other people you know are also filthy rich.  So I support the idea that it is at least possible that bad, extremely rich parents can screw up their kid so badly that he would do something so terrible.  I mean there was no intent to kill here, but this is always the danger of drinking and driving, and punishments are often quite harsh for most people.  Now most people are outraged by the judge’s verdict of affluenza, and for good reason.  I am among one of those outraged, but perhaps for slightly different reasons.

The case raises numerous philosophical questions for me.  At what age do we become blameless for the mistakes of our parents?  Should parents ever be made responsible for crimes their children commit?  How long does the psychological impacts of things that happen in our childhood last? How long can we use them as an excuse for poor decisions that we make?  A child that is raised to hate African-Americans will probably hate African-Americans, but will he ever commit a hate crime? Who knows, but if he did, would it be an acceptable excuse to use the fact that your parents taught you to hate as a defense?  If the kid committed the crime at 13, is that adult enough?  Would we still all be as outraged at the verdict?  What about traumatic events like sexual abuse or physical abuse?  These things have definitely been shown to do psychological damage for possibly the rest of one’s life.  It seems reasonable that if you reinforced from childhood that a certain behavior is acceptable, you will likely feel that way as an adult.  The condition of affluenza, however, is perhaps not as legitimate as one thinks, at least according to one of the co-producers of the 1997 PBS documentary on the subject.   As John de Graaf points out, that in a capitalistic, consumer based society such as ours, we may all suffer from this to a certain degree.  Furthermore he says it is not a psychological condition, but rather a societal criticism.  Affluenza is not a condition recognized by the American Psychological Association.

But let’s say that even if we accept that bad parenting seriously messed up this kid, a whole host of other questions come to mind.  How often can we use psychological conditions as a defense?  Are such rulings equally applied to all such cases?  If there is a psychological condition that can be contracted by rich kids, what psychological condition does poverty cause and can these not be made for their defense when they commit crimes?

The same judge gave a 14 year old African-American a much harsher sentence for a much lesser crime the previous year.  One only has to look at the amount of minorities and poor people in the prison system, who commited crimes that did not lead to anyone’s death, to be convinced that such defenses as affluenza or any other defense based on psychological damage in their upbringing has not been successful.  The impacts of poverty on children, in fact, is a far greater reason actually for “deviant” behavior as young adults and is actually well researched within the psychological community.  Ultimately this is why I am so enraged.  There is probably no greater slap in the face the legal system could give to the poor than this verdict.   A compassionate sentence is either deserved by all or by none.  Whether you think incarceration helps society or not, there cannot be any true justice when it does not apply equally to all citizens.    If prison isn’t the answer for Ethan Couch then at the very least he should be made to volunteer and live in an inner city neighborhood.  If society truly believed in his correction then he won’t receive the education he sorely needs which is compassion and understanding for how the rest of society lives, especially since he hasn’t been punished in a way that the rest of society is punished for similar crimes.  His parents are paying $450,000/year to go to this swanky facility in California.  I shudder to think how many lives could be made better with that money instead of teaching one kid a lesson that would perhaps be better taught in other ways.  There is nothing inherently more valuable about Ethan Couch than any other youth who has been sent to a juvenile detention center or jail.  As income disparity mounts every branch of our government still continues to help the smallest minority ; the rich.  How long can we live in this illusion that we are the best country when we incarcerate more people than those places we consider our enemy and backwards in thinking?  How long can we live in the illusion of trickledown economics?  How long can we live in the illusion of the American Dream that all you have to do is work hard and that dream will come true?  This case is as much about racism and inequality as the George Zimmerman case and it is even more of a reason to be outraged at where our country is headed.  Don’t confuse the meanings of money and value.  Nobody is better person just because they have money and it’s time the government and the justice system stopped acting like this was true.

Game, Set, and Match

“Nothing in the world is harder than convincing someone of an unfamiliar truth”  – said by Kvothe in A Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss

Every person on the planet can agree on one thing.  The world could be a better place.  For those of us who strive towards equality, wish to reduce human suffering, and care about the planet as a whole the world looks fairly messed up.  Some people  ignore the problems.  That’s a bit selfish perhaps, but the weight can be a lot to bear and we all have our limits, so who am I to judge?  Some people are definitely selfish because instead of trying to fight it they simply become part of the problem.  Trying to get a share of what they think is theirs.  If the world is going to be unfair then why not do whatever it takes to be a winner and not a loser?  In recognizing that we are a cooperative species, to me the fight to making the world more fair is always worth it even if the goal is never achieved and feels like a continual uphill battle that sometimes gets steeper and not gentler.  As a whole, we are simply better when we are working together to solve problems.  Problems do arise, even ones not of our own making.  Even ones that do arise because of our own making we can’t always blame ourselves, because hey nobody’s perfect and hindsight is 20/20 (at least we hope).

In this age of information and social media the amount of people that can be in contact with each other has expanded exponentially.  As a result we see the vast array of opinions out there.  Some people are clearly uneducated about the subject but seem very excited that they can say something and somebody will see it.  Some people make comments simply to anger people and cause an outrage or what is known as being a troll and this has been a topic of much discussion lately.  How we deal with people who make inflammatory comments or are very hostile towards the author of an article or another person commenting on a thread.  Interestingly inflammatory comments that support the view of a particular piece is not seen as negative, only the person who disagrees.  I would argue that if you read an article that say expresses a Democratic point of view and in the comments you say something like “Just another example that Republicans are pieces of shit” then you are just as bad as anybody you consider a troll in the ensuing comments.

Spurned by a few incidents in the recent past and also by this excellently written article about making better arguments in politics I wanted to express my thoughts about how we might be able to engage people we disagree with in a more meaningful way.  The quote that starts this article is something that just struck me as the wisest words ever written when I read them and speaks to why if you like to debate and engage people with different points of view, why you are rarely successful.

Picture from Amazon.com

The article that I linked in the previous paragraph talks about biases we have.  For a very comprehensive look at our biases and beliefs I also strongly recommend reading the The Believing Brain by Michael Shermer.  It’s a brilliantly constructed book and very educational.  His argument is that we believe first and rationalize later.  I think your immediate intuition sees the truth in that.  Right now you might think well that’s what the other guy does, but if you are really honest with yourself you’d realize you do it too.  It takes a lot of discipline to let your reasoning side take over, and suppress that “gut feeling” to believe what you think is right.  As a result of this tendency to believe first and then rationalize those beliefs, when absorbing a new piece of information we tend to see it in a light that supports our beliefs rather than negate them.

Another bias we have that is the main part of the article is the self-serving bias.  The idea that in order to protect our self-esteem or sense of self-worth we must reject ideas that make us feel like we are wrong about something.  As the article says is we are wrong about one thing, then what else might we be wrong about, and then how do we deal with the idea of not being as smart as we think we are?  This is why I think one of the most important human virtues we can have is humility as I wrote about in a previous blog post.  Being wrong about something is a tough thing to deal with.  What is strange to me is that I think we can all agree that we’ve experienced being wrong before.  If you reflect on your life you’ll realize you actually got through it and you are actually okay.  Nevertheless we still tend to not deal to well with it in the moment.  Just like dealing with addiction, admitting you have a problem is the first step. 🙂  In this case, don’t worry because everybody has these biases and so everybody has this problem.  So I would like to provide what I think is a helpful guide to getting people to see things from your point of view.  And if right now you are asking, “Why should I listen to this guy?”  Well because quit frankly I’m right dammit! 😉

Be the person you would like others to be

Painting by Miles Halpern

Don’t you hate it when someone is not sympathetic to you and the oppression or struggles you face?  It makes you angry, it makes you not really like that person, and it makes you frustrated.  So what should your response be?  Most people seem to respond by being equally dismissive to others and their problems.  What if, however, you tried to remain that sympathetic and compassionate person you hoped the other person would be?  What if you said “I’m sorry you can’t understand how the incident made me feel, and even though I don’t know why you can’t be sympathetic to my struggles I sincerely hope that you never have to feel the way that I do right now.”  If someone cannot demonstrate compassion for your genuine reason for being angry about something or being hurt about something, being afraid of something, or whatever is causing a negative emotion that is all the more reason to give sympathy towards them in return.  Give them an example of what sympathy and empathy is all about.  Maybe nobody has ever showed them any and so they literally don’t know it’s value or what it’s about.  Maybe they had an ultra-chauvinistic father who never allowed them to show their feelings and were always told “Buck up and be a man you pussy!”  Imagine growing up with that all your life.  How much compassion would you have as an adult?  Gandhi said “Be the change you’d like to see in the world” and so if you feel your worldview is superior in making this world a better place, make sure that you are genuinely being the type of person you would like to see in others.

Also haven’t you ever had someone in your life who you really respected because they seemed like a good person.  You admired them.  You wanted to be like them.  You are more likely to cause a change in someone’s behavior by being a positive role model rather than someone who berates them for their ideas.  Why would anyone want to be like someone who just belittles people for their beliefs even when those beliefs are misguided.  Because to the person with those beliefs…well they believe it and thus think they are not misguided.

Make sure you have a good sense of self-worth

What’s this you say?  I thought this was the problem.  The article I linked actually talks about using daily affirmations to enhance your self-worth as being important in being able to face things that you might be wrong about so that there is no net loss in self-worth.  I think the author glosses over this to almost make it seem like a trick you are using rather than genuinely building your self-worth.  If you have low self-esteem it can be hard to debate or argue with someone in a constructive manner.  Obviously if you barely value yourself, the few things that you do value about yourself, you will be even more afraid of losing.  Building a true sense of self-worth takes time and experience.  It takes an admission of your faults and the continual persistence to improve.  It takes trying not make the same mistake twice, even if it sometimes happen.  Practice humility, forgiveness, and spend time just observing and reflecting on those experiences before forming an opinion.  Then learn about how other people experience the world and try to pick out the commonalities in your experience rather than focusing on the differences.  Your self-worth will grow actually when you recognize that the world doesn’t revolve around you.  Self-worth and self-centered are completely different but often get tangled.

Make sure you respect the self-worth of others

From hellobeautiful.com

I’m not asking you to admit you’re wrong or say somebody else is right, but when you are humble and are willing to at least to consider the possibility that you might be at least partially wrong about your point of view, you will find that you move to a place of being inquisitive about where someone else’s point of view comes from.  This will lead you to ask more questions to see where that person is coming from.  It will help you get to know the person and that person now knows that you are interested in who they are, and are simply not just interested in making them feel like they are wrong.  After all who wants to listen and take seriously someone who is only interested in pointing out how right they are, and how wrong you are?  It doesn’t matter if you are actually right and that the other person is actually wrong.  People have a lot of wrong ideas not because they choose to be wrong but because they have been conditioned in their environment to see the world differently.

Recently there has been a lot of arguments in social media about racism and reverse racism.  What if someone is trying to advance the position that reverse-racism of blacks against whites is just as big of a problem as racism against black people?  You can respond angrily, dismissively, you can throw out all sorts of data and you’ll probably notice this makes no difference whatsoever.  What if instead you said “Hmmm…you know that hasn’t been my experience.  Can you tell me what makes you think that way?  Have you experienced racism as a white person?  If you have I am really sorry about that because I have personally experienced racism as well.  Maybe we could share our experiences.  Because I know how much it hurts when someone assumes something about you based on the color of your skin.”  In reality of that interaction with someone it doesn’t matter that as a whole blacks are not treated as equals and that white people do enjoy a position of privilege in society, because that person has simply been shaped by their experiences and their interpretation of those experience.  Sometimes being able to see the big picture is also a position of privilege.  It probably means you have had greater opportunities for education and slightly better income so that you have leisure time to explore a topic in more detail.  Perhaps parents who were interested in different points of view, valued diversity, etc.  Not everyone is lucky enough to have that.  Showing respect for a person and their experiences that led them to what they think is true today, is a better way to be heard by that person.  You might just tear down a few walls and find that you might not be that different at all.

Be willing to walk away

This seems pretty obvious.  A common piece of advice told by parents who want their child to not get into a physical fight.  It is true for fighting with words as well.  If you are hitting a wall with someone and trying harder each time, you will probably find that the wall is only getting thicker and harder.  You probably don’t even notice the tone of your dialogue change, but in my observation not just in other arguments I have watched, but when I’ve had a chance to look back at my own words I realized that the angrier I get, my logic gets worse and my tone becomes more inflammatory.  Being a more experienced teacher I now have more experience in just watching people who have trouble learning.  Being a good teacher is to find alternative ways in which someone can learn what you are saying and all those ways require patience and understanding.  So I think I am better at it that I was, but one can always improve.

More importantly of course getting angry, frustrated, and stressed because someone simply doesn’t “get it” is no way to live life.  It could be your inability to argue effectively, it could be your tone, and of course it could be completely and absolutely all their fault.  So what?  Maybe it is possible that they will simply never, ever agree with you so why waste your time and energy?  If you really feel convinced that you could make your argument better, then don’t keep arguing maniacally, but step away and reflect.  Pay less attention to the content of what you have said, but how you have said it.  Look less at the content of what they have said but try to pay attention to the experiences that may have led them to that line of thinking and try starting again.  The point is, if you feel yourself starting to get angry or frustrated, you should probably just stop.  Because I guarantee that you will not only not win, but you will have to deal with an emotion that can quite honestly ruin your day.

True change takes time

Photo by Alan Cleaver via flickr

Plenty of times in my life I have thought I have made no impact and sometimes weeks, months, or years later I see someone who has changed their position on something that they seemed so sure of in the past.  Most teachers will have stories of students who they couldn’t  motivate, were often at odds with, and felt sadness that they weren’t able to “reach” that student.  Only to get an e-mail a year later with an apology, or a revelation from that student, saying that they realize now how their behavior was wrong and that they appreciate you for trying to motivate them and believing in them.  Many times in the moment I have felt frustrated at being told I’m wrong about something.  I might even argue my case further even if I am out of additional legs to stand on.  Then I sit and think.  I read some more.  Realize that maybe something I read, or something somebody told me was wrong.  Or perhaps I realized that I hadn’t looked at a previous experience in the right way, and that I hadn’t perhaps learned all the lessons from it I should have.  Nowadays I try to let that person know that they were right about something and I was wrong.  In the past when my own self-esteem wasn’t strong I was often too embarrassed to admit it to that person.  That doesn’t mean that person didn’t have an effect on me.  So it may seem like wishful thinking, but don’t ever think your exchange didn’t have any value at all.  Because you never know.  It may happen years down the road, or the change may be ever so slight but because it caused someone to look in a different direction, it sets them down a path of learning they never would have gone down before without you.

——–

As a final thought I want to make it clear that I don’t pretend any of this is easy, or that I am the awesome person that I describe here.  I HATE being wrong and in my experience most other people do too.   Perhaps its because I have gotten older that the accumulation of things I have been wrong about has added up to such a proportion that it has humbled me.  I don’t know.  What we consider right and wrong however is a product of many things.  A function of space and time. Perhaps instead of thinking of yourself as being wrong about something, think of it as “Maybe I don’t know everything there is to know about something.  So maybe I’m not wrong, just not as right as I could be.” 🙂  Play nice and remember it’s a big sandbox.  There is room for a lot more people in it than you think. 🙂